If ever you needed proof that racial profiling happens without cause, it was there in the viral video James Conley III shot last week showing how he was falsely accused of shoplifting at the Jordan Creek Old Navy in West Des Moines, Iowa.
To too many Americans, an indignity like being told to take off your jacket (the one you bought at that very store) to prove you didn't steal it is an all-too-familiar scenario. What was it that tripped employees' suspicion of Conley, a dedicated Old Navy shopper? That the jacket looked too new and clean to be his? Where was the sincere apology when the scanner and security camera revealed otherwise? How do these stores train their staffs?
I put out feelers, including a Facebook post, for other examples of being profiled while shopping. Within hours, I had story upon heartbreaking story of differential treatment.
There were the professional African-American men who spoke of being followed around stores. One of them was Tim Tutt, an award-winning Hanawalt Elementary School teacher of 27 years. He said he was ordered to empty out his pockets and unzip his jacket at a chain drug store when shopping late one night. Finding nothing, the manager apologized.
There was Ivette Muhammad, the African-American director of outreach for Creative Visions who was shopping at a thrift store when a sales clerk asked if she planned to pay for the headband she was wearing, which she had bought two weeks earlier. "I literally felt like I had to take it off and show," how it was worn, she said, and she did.
White men told of how differently their wives (one black, one Latina) are treated from them in stores. One had an incident at a national chain store in 2013, which eventually resulted in an apology and a $50 gift card. The woman had gone to return a bunch of clothes but the store had not refunded her for one $16 item. When she returned with her child after discovering that, she said the manager kept accusing her of keeping the item, which was later found in the store. There was no onsite apology. Marie Rivers, a black woman, said another national chain store accused her of having lifted something she had a receipt for when she tried to return it. The store eventually tried to make things right.
White women seem to lose the presumption of innocence when they're shopping with African-American children. Dawn Price, who used to live in Des Moines but now runs a non-profit in California, wrote of how things changed after she adopted a black son: "My class status as a white woman changed when my black infant son was with me. As a black friend put it at the time, 'the conclusion is that you slept with a black man.' That's reinforced, as well, by the fact that my husband (also white) never experienced this treatment, nor did the three of us when we were together in public."
Wrote another white mother of an adopted black daughter, "We are now realizing what minorities have had to deal with forever."
Some women of color have found that having their white husbands around can buffer them and their children from the indignities they would face on their own. Sexism obviously plays a role there. Being with a white man apparently is believed to bestow status on a woman of color, no matter how important a job or high an education she has. Being with a black man isn't. Sherri Sage Selin, who is white, said her white daughter is followed around at a store when she's with her black boyfriend, but not otherwise.
A higher income can sometimes, but not always, be a buffer against racial prejudice. It wasn't in Oprah Winfrey's case when she went to Zurich, Switzerland, in 2013 to attend Tina Turner's wedding. She told Entertainment Tonight: "I go into a store and say to the woman, 'Excuse me, may I see that bag?' and she says to me 'No, it's too expensive.'"
Winfrey said she asked again but the woman again refused, saying she couldn't afford it. The crocodile-skin bag cost $38,000. Winfrey is said to have a net worth of $2.8 billion.
Conversely, being white isn't necessarily a buffer against being of low-income. One white woman responded to my Facebook post, writing "when you wear cheap tennis shoes, carry a handbag you made yourself, no-name clothing and are a dumpy, overweight, old broad, you feel sort of like you're profiled in a strange sort of way. Nobody EVER asks me, 'Can I assist you?' "
Prejudice can be so demeaning, there is shame in even speaking of one's experiences with it. So, many people don't. "So many of us have had these experiences," said Tutt. "Sure, people do steal but you can't just look at a person and assume." He used to work at a book store and said employees who even saw someone shoplift were told to call a manager. If it was something relatively inexpensive like a CD, the attitude was that it wasn't worth upsetting a customer and to let it go.
Now as a teacher, Tutt talks to his students about civil rights history and says, "The kids' minds are really open to hearing those kinds of stories." He believes teaching respect is just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Old Navy ended up firing three employees involved in the incident with Conley. I hope other employers are emphatically instructing theirs not to make assumptions based on customers' race, gender or appearance, and that sales staff are doing some hard soul-searching about their stereotypes.
About The Writer
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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